Jeff Corwin is becoming the Everyman Indiana Jones. Because he's not just an "animal guy" anymore. And while his first MSNBC documentary, Future Earth: 100 Heartbeats, may have enough cute fuzzy animal appeal to woo doe-eyed animal lovers, the brutal scenes familiar to the nature show lineup don't come from circling hyenas, but from us, whether we're poachers in the African bush or simply shoppers in a U.S. grocery store.
And that's the point, driven home with a series of profiles of species on the brink of extinction and those "conservation heroes" trying to preserve them: They're cute, they're fuzzy, they're important to the ecological functioning of the Earth ... and we humans are both their biggest enemies and their last chance at survival. The education for the layman in the documentary is this: The Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction event, the likes of which has been seen before, but not during humanity's tenure on the planet, and never before caused by single species. Past extinction events are thought to have been triggered by meteor strikes, volcanic eruptions and climactic changes. This one is all our's.
Corwin's inspiration came from a conversation with his daughter about Panamanian golden frog, once Panama's national symbol and a frog he has showed in previous documentaries, he told the crowd gathered at a screening this week in New York. "She said, 'If we ever go to Panama, you have to show me that frog.' I said, 'I can't.'" It's extinct. (And Panama has chosen a new national symbol.)
The depressing part of his new documentary -- and there are about two parts depressing to every part inspiration in this recipe -- is that the threats come in so many and varied forms. And the editing team was unflinching. If this documentary is your first experience of a pangolin, you'll have the stomach-churning experience of seeing a pickled pangolin fetus awaiting sale at a Cambodian restaurant. If you've never witnessed shark finning -- slicing fins off live sharks and tossing them back in the ocean to sink slowly and drown -- then here's your chance.
For amphibians like the multicolored and charismatic frogs of Panama -- some of which Corwin searches out while wading knee-deep in a cave filled with bat guano -- the primary threat is a fungus that's been spreading for unexplained reasons, but probably aided and abetted by human trade and travel. For rhinoceroses, sharks and the elephants, it's a poached-toward-extinction mix of inadequate policing, poverty, greed and strange folk medicine (if you think rhino horn powder improves your sex drive, try biting your nails, because it's the same stuff). For orangutans, the orphaned young of which (one is tempted to write "of whom") deliver some of the film's unforgettable doses of cute as they cling to Corwin's neck and stare up wide-eyed at their first experience of untouched rainforest, the threat is in every grocery store product that contains palm oil; for companies and farmers in Borneo, it's far cheaper to clear-cut the orangutan's forests than to seed palm plantations on already cleared land.
The inspiring part of the documentary comes in passionate care the protectors take with their species. We see surrogate cheetah moms and deft condor surgeons. One man adopts the role of mother for an orphaned rhino, and the viewer is treated to touching scenes of him sleeping an arm's length away, and exercising the dancing behemoth (if you don't believe rhinos dance, you'll have to watch the documentary). But there's often brutality even in the care shown to these creatures. The documentary opens with scenes of helicopters chasing down racing rhinos to dart them with tranquilizers, and rangers bloodying the animals to mark them and to take tissue samples, before wrestling them into crates and shipping them like freight ... to the safety of a national park many miles away.
The documentary footage, spanning four continents, distills hundreds of hours of footage into about 90 minutes (without commercials). It airs Sunday night on MSNBC at 8 p.m. ET. Its release coincides with the publication of a book of the same title. The gimmick in the title is a good one: 100 heartbeats, for the species profiled, is about all it would take for them to slip into nothingness. The argument that protecting these creatures is a moral imperative is persuasive, not only because we hold the fates of entire species in our hands, but because future generations will only experience them if we protect them now. Jeff Corwin, with the earnestness we're familiar with, is the perfect reporter to deliver this kind of hard-hitting message. America already trusts him with the world's wildlife, and he's already welcome in our living rooms.
If the documentary could have been stronger, it would have included more of a call-to-action: What can we do besides feel bad for that boiled sea turtle, or the finned shark? Don't eat shark fin soup, sure... But what else? Some of the animals' protectors offer ideas at the close of the documentary: avoid and ban the lead shot that poisons wildlife like the California Condor, make sustainability a priority in purchasing decisions and donate to those organizations that make wildlife conservation possible, like the Cheetah Conservation Fund, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project and others profiled on screen and in print.
Here are 10 things you can do to stop extinctions, according to the Endangered Species Coalition.
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